Organizers of the Canadian Birkebeiner (Birkie) said it was “good fortune” that allowed them to pull off the cross-country ski event for the 32nd year.
In 2016, the event was cancelled due to low amounts of snow and icy trails. The following year, Canadian Birkebeiner Society president Mark Ryan said the event was again almost cancelled because of weather conditions.
“It came down to the final week. We got a late snowfall. It was hit-and-miss. We finally got that little bit of late snow and we said we’re good,” Ryan said.
He said there was uncertainty surrounding this year’s event until the recent snowfalls.
“We thought it would be a little better with the early snow that we had in October and November. We had that early snow and then it all melted in December,” he said.
“The last couple weeks, we got all this snow. I know people in the city were a little upset… but we were really pleased.”
Ryan said there were 540 skiers registered for the Birkie last week, a number that climbed closer to 1,000 by Friday night.
“We just got really lucky this year with the weather holding out and the late snow. We had Alberta Parks working tirelessly this week setting the tracks, grooming the trails,” he said.
“At the end, things came together this year. It feels really good.”
Ryan said participants came from across Alberta and even across the United States to participate in the various events, such as the 55 km, 31 km, 13 km, 2 km and 4 km races.
Stefan Duret has been cross-country skiing since he was young. This is the fourth time he is racing in the Birkie.
“Last year… everything came together at the last-minute and they were able to pull it off, which is great,” he said.
Last week, he was fighting off the flu but said he became determined to race after seeing the conditions.
“They’ve never been this good so I just told myself… I have to do this,” he said.
“The temperature was just perfect. [It] started off about minus 10C. It was a bit windy but the snow is just amazing and the trails just perfect.”
Skier Mike Boeske also said the conditions were ideal for this weekend’s races.
“We got that snow like two weeks ago and that made for some really, really nice tracks,” he said.
“Definitely three weeks ago when it hadn’t snowed at all, I was thinking I don’t know if we’re going to have enough snow. Even last year, we had a problem with snow but the volunteers managed to get a really nice track together anyway.”
Ryan said organizers hope to attract some “new blood” in the event.
“We’re really just hoping to get the Birkie back to where it was. In the late 90s, we were up to 2,500 registrants. If the weather can start to cooperate with us again year after year, I think we’ll get back there again,” Ryan said.
Duret said it may not be that difficult to get people interested in the sport.
“Just getting out here, getting out to skiing at Goldbar in town, skiing at the Strathcona Wilderness Centre and seeing how good the trails are. I think as long as you can get people out for that first time, they’ll fall in love,” he said.
The Birkie wraps up on Sunday.